Early Christian Architecture

A church in Pabuda, Syria.

By the end of the first century, it is evident that Christian places of worship had developed a somewhat standard form of architecture. Churches from the 1st through the 3rd centuries took classical Greek and Roman architecture in its most flourished form as its main influence. Classical architecture had at this time reached its height after developing for thousands of years.

The tendency to use Greek and Roman architectural styles was made without reference to their original symbolism. This allowed for a more complete freedom of architectural styles. There were, however, unique designs that were created specifically for churches. One of the few architectural developments made by early churches was the construction of a dome on top of a polygon.

The Basilica

The term Basilica originally denoted anything kingly or lordly. The basic characteristics of a basilica in terms of a place of worship are: a rectangular ground plan divided longitudinally into three or five aisles by columns which support the roof. The roof above the middle aisle (the nave) is raised above the adjacent aisles so that its supporting walls have openings for air and light. A half dome projects beyond the rectangular plan.

Monastery of Saint Thaddeus Monastery of Saint Thaddeus

Armenia is believed to be the first nation to adopt Christianity as the state religion. The country therefore has some of the oldest churches. Thaddeus, one of the twelve apostles of Jesus and also referred to as St. Jude, spent many years spreading the gospel in Armenia. In 68 AD the country built a monastery dedicated to him. It is the oldest church still standing, and currently within the borders of Iran.

The spread of Christianity by the third century AD. The spread of Christianity by the third century AD.

By the third century, it was the Middle East that was the most flourished region for Christianity. This area mostly included Asia Minor, Syria, and Egypt. Unfortunately it is in this area that early Christian monuments have either been completely destroyed or hardly explored. Many of these early churches were likely converted by Islam into mosques, the most notable example being Hagia Sophia.

Here Syria is an exception. The conquest of Islam left the greater part of this area an empty desert. Since most of these early churches were built of stone, they have survived. They are therefore some of the best available examples of Christian architecture from the third and fourth centuries.

The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem. in Bethlehem. Constantine ordered a church to be built over the place of Jesus' birth in 339 AD. Two crusading kings were later crowned here.

The Holy Land, especially Jerusalem and Bethlehem, was a place of pilgrimage and therefore was the site of many beautiful churches. Many of these were constructed first by the order of Roman Emperor Constantine and later Justinian. Scant remains are still left of these churches. The Crusaders who came 1000 years later, in their love of building, showed little respect for ancient monuments.

We would expect Egypt to be a wonderful place of ancient churches to explore, since it was one of the first Christian strongholds. But here too, the Coptic churches have been so thoroughly destroyed or fundamentally altered that not much more than the original foundation can be discovered.

Plan Views of Early Churches

Early Churches plan view 1 (A) St. Lorenzo, Rome; (B) Basilica in Suweda, Syria; (C) Basilica Ursiana, Ravenna; (D) St. Paul's, Rome.
Early Churches plan view 2 (E) Xenodochium of Pammachius, Porto; (F) St. Maria Maggiore, Rome; (G) Basilica in Kalb-Luseh, Syria.

Exterior and Interior Views of Early Churches

Basilica in Turmanin, Syria. Basilica in Turmanin, Syria. Fifth century.
Basilica in Kalb-Luseh, Syria Basilica in Kalb-Luseh, Syria. Fifth century.
St. Apollinare in Nuovo, Ravenna. St. Apollinare in Nuovo, Ravenna. Sixth century.
St. George, Ezra, Syria. St. George, Ezra, Syria.
Qasr Bin Wardan Church, Northern Syria Qasr Bin Wardan Church, Northern Syria. Built during the reign of Justinian I, Sixth century.
Kharab Shems Church, Syria. Kharab Shems Church. One of the oldest churches in Northern Syria. Fourth century.

Take heed now; for the Lord hath chosen thee to build an house for the sanctuary: be strong, and do it.
1 Chronicles 28:10

Originally published
Updated March 2021
Researched and Written by: Thomas Acreman

  Monuments of the Early Church by
  A History of Christianity by
  Early churches in Syria: Fourth to Seventh Centuries by
  Desert Syria, the Land of a Lost Civilization by
  St. Thaddeus Apostle Monastery -

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Early Christian Architecture

  • Justin
    This makes me curious as to why Christianty succeeded spreading predominately westward from its Roman epicenter, yet failed doing the same eastward. Any ideas?
  • Wake
    I would have to do some more research on the later years of Christianity, but I would say that Christianity did spread eastward. This was likely halted by the pushback of Islam in the seventh century. Egypt was as much of a Christian stronghold as Rome until the Muslim conquest in the seventh century.
  • How does the basilica and its parts like the nav relate to the Christian ceremony?
  • Wake
    The Nave is a space specifically reserved for procession of the choir or acolytes from the entrance towards the front of the church. Church goers sit in pews on the outer sides of the nave. Next is the Transept, which is where a priest or minister gives the sermon. Above that and at the front of the sanctuary is the choir loft.
  • Kaii
    Hi! I'm an architecture student and I would like to know what are other examples of Early Christian Churches and also their parts (name of the rooms, space, etc.); I just wanted them as references for my future subjects :D Thanks a lot
  • Wake
    I spent quite a bit of time researching the churches in this article and these were the oldest ones I could find. If I find more I will certainly add them to the article. See the comment above for a list of the separate rooms of a church. Thanks for reading and good luck to you in architecture school!
  • Ben
    Are there any other examples of early Christians of this time period translating roman civic buildings into their new society?
  • Wake
    Ben, the churches listed in this article are the earliest ones that I could find that were constructed originally for the specific purpose of housing Christian worship services. Other churches exist from this time period that were simply converted from the worship of Roman gods. The Temple d'Auguste et de Livie in France is one such example. So old Roman temples were converted to churches but there is very little evidence that Roman civic buildings were converted to churches.
  • Tom
    Hello, thank you for an intresting article. Would you recommend any online resources or books one could use to explore Christian Architecture space? I will appreciate your feedback.
  • Wake
    Monuments of the Early Church by Walter Lowrie was my main source for this article. You can read it here.

    Other than this book, there are very few sources available for architecture of the early church, so I had to look at individual churches and compare them to established architectural norms from the rest of society at the time.

    There are plenty of resources available for church architecture after 1000 AD, such as Britannica.

  • malar
    hi,this is malar.thank you for your wonderful and helpfull article. i need an article about egptian civilization like this. did you have any idea about preparing it?
  • Wake
    Glad you enjoyed it Malar. I have not thought of looking into Egyptian architecture. But it would certainly be interesting to see if the architecture made some kind of progression as the centuries went on. I may look into that in the future, thanks for your suggestion!
  • Alessandra
    Hi, i enjoyed reading your post. I wanted to know in what period does Paleo-Christian architecture took place?
  • Wake
    Thanks! Paleo-Christian describes the time period before the Byzantine Era. This could be before the dedication of Constantinople in 330, or before the Age of Justinian in the 6th century.
  • Hi, thank you for all the historic information here.
    Please can you throw more light on how the church started under the trees and haw they transcended to church buildings. Thanks.

  • One of the most iconic features of early Christian architecture is the basilica plan, characterized by a rectangular nave, side aisles, and an apse.
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